Living in Northwest Florida, folks become accustomed to seeing squirrels, shorebirds, songbirds and the occasional opossum, usually dead by the side of the road.
But in actuality, we share this part of the world with everything from snakes and alligators, to bears, coyotes and beavers. You might also see foxes, owls, vultures, tortoises and turtles, most of whom seem to spend their days trudging back and forth busy roadways.
Wildlife and animal experts say it's possible to peacefully coexist with most of these critters, although some may require a little extra consideration. They also say they get their fair share of calls from folks who are surprised to discover how closely they live to some species.
"The bears are the biggest as far as the public not realizing how many there are around here and being surprised when they show up in their back yards," said Dee Thompson, director of the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society.
She said her agency gets calls about everything from domestic animals to alligators, bears, coyotes and snakes. Some calls they handle themselves. Others they refer to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
She said sometimes they're only aware of the proximity of certain types of wildlife -- particularly alligators and coyotes -- after people's small pets start disappearing.
"We have coyote issues right around the shelter here," she said of their Lovejoy Road location. "They're pretty much showing up. We've never had anyone be attacked by one."
Beavers are an animal that lives in our midst, but are rarely spotted. Folks along North Beal Extension on a cold winter night were treated to the sight of a large beaver waddling down the middle of the road. A few weeks later, a beaver found his way to the top of the bleachers in the South Walton High School football stadium.
"They're very, very very difficult to catch," Thompson said adding that traps were problematic because beavers wouldn't enter then on land. In the water, they drown if caught in a trip.
Armadillos, frequently spotted dead along the road, are another animal to avoid.
"We always tell people don't mess with them. Don't touch them," Thompson said.
Skunks are here and spend a lot of time on the beach, under the boardwalk, she said.
A spokesperson for FWC said the most common calls they receive are about bears, alligators and coyotes. They also hear from folks about hawks, owls, snakes, raccoons and bobcats. In an emailed response to questions, the FWC said coyotes and bobcats top list of critters folks are surprised to encounter.
"Due to their elusive behavior, people are often surprised to learn of their widespread distribution throughout the state, particularly when they appear in neighborhoods," the email said.
Though most people encounter wildlife outside of their homes, a few find that they are actually sharing their homes with critters.
"Wildlife may occasionally enter homes via pet doors, and FWC has received calls from surprised residents about raccoons in kitchens, a snake in a set of roller blinds and even an opossum resting on a living room couch," the FWC said.
Gator calls are common for both agencies and FWC handles most of them. Animal Control officers from PAWS may respond to smaller gator calls, but they refer larger critters to FWC. If the gators are large enough, FWC uses contracted nuisance alligator trappers to move them.
It is possible to peacefully coexist with wildlife, particularly if you follow these basic rules:
1. Do not intentionally feed wildlife.
2. Learn to identify materials that attract wildlife.
3. Keep pets and outdoor stock secured.
4. Observe it from a distance. Be prepared.
On a side note, if you see a turtle or tortoise crossing the road, here's the best way to help them, according to experts at the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge:
Move it in the same direction it was going. Look at it's feet. Water turtles have webbed feet or claws with really long nails. Land tortoises have stumpy looking elephant feet with no digits on the end. When in doubt, put them next to a water source. Don't ever put it in water.
According to the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge, some animals fall into the "rarely rescued" category. Over the years, they've been brought one "teeny-tiny" snake, several "coyotes" that turned out to be dogs with mange and no vultures. "Nobody likes to go rescue them because their defense mechanism is to projectile vomit and they eat dead things, so it's not pleasant," said Michelle Pettis, wildlife health technician.
Step away from the loon:
The funniest calls that wildlife experts say they get are from tourists worried about the loons who "can't walk," so must be injured or ill. In reality, loons can swim and fly, but they literally can't walk, even when they are in their prime.